Tart and Velvety Beet Tonic from Poland

beet kwasI have seldom fermented beets on their own; for some reason these roots, when brined, seem more inclined to grow mold than to sour. But an ample harvest of beets from my garden this year inspired me to try making beet kwas, or kwas burakowy, a popular Polish tonic.

Kwas (or kvass) is a sour, refreshing fermented drink enjoyed throughout eastern Europe. The typical version, made from bread and water, may date to the tenth century. According to the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, kwas made from beets became popular in Poland in the 1920s. Deep red and slightly viscous, it has been traditionally used in a Christmas Eve borscht, but it is also drunk straight as an energy booster.

Today beet kwas enthusiasts make numerous claims about the health benefits of their favorite drink. Beets are full of antioxidants; they help prevent cancer and arteriosclerosis; they are good for colds, weakness, anemia, and recovery from antibiotic use. They support the kidneys and liver. They lower cholesterol; they improve immune function; they contain vitamins A, C, and B (including folic acid) and the minerals iron, potassium, and calcium. Fermenting the beets makes these nutrients more available to the body. Beet kwas “purifies” the blood and the liver, lowers blood pressure, and boosts stamina during exercise.

I can’t vouch for any of these claims, but a crimson vegetable that tastes like dirt has got to be good for you, right? Fermentative bacteria add their own nutrients and balance the dirty taste with lactic and acetic acid. Both the flavor and healthfulness of beet kwas can be enhanced with the seasonings of your choice—for Poles, garlic (always!), allspice, black pepper, sweet bay, fennel, horseradish, carrot, and celery. Americans who have recently discovered beet kwas favor sweet and fruity flavorings—lemon, orange, ginger, and sweet spices.

Finally, you add rye bread. Poles traditionally boost fermentation—even when making cucumber pickles—by laying a stale heel of sourdough rye bread on top of the brine. I hoped that adding a slice of my own homemade sourdough rye would get me sour rather than moldy beet tonic.

I followed the method of Robert and Maria Strybel, Polish-Americans who first published their Polish Heritage Cookery in 1993. Here is my version of their simple recipe:

Kwas Burakowy (Beet Kwas)

1 pound red beets, peeled and sliced thin
1 large garlic clove, chopped
½ teaspoon sugar
1½ teaspoons pickling salt
1 slice sourdough rye bread
5 cups lukewarm water (filtered or boiled, if it has been chlorinated)

Put the beets into a 2-quart jar (I used a mason jar). Add the garlic, sugar, and salt. Place the bread on top, and pour the water over. Cover the jar loosely. (I used a plastic mason-jar lid but screwed it on only part way; the Strybels advise using cheesecloth or a dish towel.) If the beets float to the surface, weight them. (Mine didn’t float, but if they had I would have weighted them with one of my glass candle holders.) Let the jar stand at room temperature.

After four days, begin tasting the liquid. When a pleasant tartness has subdued the dirty taste—for me, this took six days—strain the liquid. (Although neither the Strybels nor other Polish writers whose works I consulted advised this, I squeezed the bread before discarding it. I also saved the sliced beets, to use slivered in salads, although they had lost some of their color.) 

You should have about 1 quart kwas. Pour it into a bottle, cap the bottle, and chill it.

For health, Poles say, drink a cup of beet kwas once or twice a day. Some say to start with just an ounce or two and gradually increase the dose to 8 eight ounces.

I drank a small glass of my kwas each morning before breakfast until the bottle was empty. Although I usually balk at the thought of a chilled drink in the morning, I’ve missed my kwas since running out. Happily, there are still more beets in the garden, ready to harvest and to transform into kwas.

7 thoughts on “Tart and Velvety Beet Tonic from Poland”

  1. How sour? I have never heard of it and all of my grandparents were from Poland. But you did say it became popular around 1920 and they came over about 10 years earlier .

  2. The Kwas recipe I have in 1 of my polish cookbooks doesn’t call for salt and I wasn’t sure if this was correct or not. I know the proper ratio of salt is critical is fermenting brined pickles but I’m not familiar enough with kwas. I can’t seem to find a definitive answer as a lot of recipes call for it. I’d like to use the recipe I have but sometimes old cookbooks leave out important information because certain things were considered common knowledge in the kitchen. So I don’t know if it’s a mistake or not.

    1. Most of the kwas recipes I’ve seen don’t call for salt. My recipe has enough salt to flavor the kwas but not to slow fermentation. I suggest following the recipe in your cookbook as written and adding salt later, if you like.

  3. I’m a Pole and I posted your recipe in one of fb groups because it was easier than write it myself. Beetroot tonic is very popular in cancer patients in Poland, especially during chemo, and among pregnant women as it helps fighting anaemia, it’s a miracle remedy. It’s also used as a base for sour soup called borscht. Few words from me, u can do it without salt, but salt is what prevent mold to grow, also we use regular, rock salt. I don’t use bread at all, but if you’re using bread as a starter to speed up fermentation you should remove it after 3 days. It’s because, again, of mold! Bread is a perfect mold growing agent. But it’s a great recipe. Thanks. And yes, we use more garlic, at least 5 or 6 cloves:)

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